New Prison Performing Arts Workshop Helps Inmates Prepare for Life Beyond Bars

Categories: Arts

MECC-Going Home 2012-25.jpg
Virginia Lee Hunter
The company, from left to right: Scott "Poet" Atchison, Raynell Brandon (striped shirt), Chris "Stretch" Melton, David "Chaplain" Ross, Lee Gough, Stan "Shug" Hearns, and Taurees "Reese" Williams.r
For most of these actors, MECC is the last stop on their journey toward parole. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 97 percent of Missouri inmates will be released before they die, and nearly 21,000 offenders leave the state's prisons each year.

Outside the prison walls these former criminals often struggle to find jobs, reconnect with their families and stay on the straight and narrow amid the enduring stigma of being an "ex-con."

In one of the first scenes in Going Home, inmates Scott "Poet" Atchison and Stan "Shug" Hearns demonstrate just how difficult it is to win the trust of a potential employer.
"Well, listen," says Atchison, playing the role of a self-important manager at a McDonald's. "You know, I'm looking at your résumé, and, well, how much time did you do?"

"Which time?" responds Hearns to laughter from the audience.

Atchison backs away slowly from Hearns, who looms high above him at six-foot-ten. "Ahhhhh. Let me be honest with you," Atchison says. "Let me explain some things about hiring you. You are very," he looks up at the towering Hearns, "impressive."

Courtesy of Prison Performing Arts
Melton and Williams rehearse with PPA during their free time. The grey jumpsuits are standard-issue for inmates at MECC.
Oblivious to the manager's fear of an ex-con with a long wrap sheet, Hearns follows him across the room until Atchison is backed into a corner, trembling like a child as he summons a security officer.

The bit is as much a commentary on societal stereotypes (Hearns is black, Atchison white) as it is slapstick physical comedy. Throughout the performance, the inmates manage to navigate similarly treacherous intersections with sincerity and grace.

Prison Performing Arts attracted national attention in 2001 when Public Radio International's This American Life dedicated an entire show to a production of Hamlet at MECC. Agnes Wilcox, the founder of PPA, says Going Home is a sort of rehearsal for the real thing. One of the most common fears among inmates, says Wilcox, is that they will fall back into bad habits once they're released.

One scene in the production depicts two recently released men visiting their parole officer. One of the ex-cons invites, and then insists, that the other sell drugs for him.

"The casualness of it just appalls me," says Wilcox. "If you can't go back to your old neighborhood, to your old friends, where do you go?"

Most of the men involved in Going Home don't have an answer. They hope to go home to family following their prison stint but realize it won't be a smooth transition.

"I was always a big sports nut," says Chris "Stretch" Melton, an actor in the De-Insitutionalize Plus skit, explaining that he raced motocross, wrestled and hunted a lot as a teenager. "When my dad was upset about something he would beat the crap out of me. That's how I thought I should take out my emotions because that's how I grew up. Poetry has definitely been a new experience, and I hope I can use it for the rest of my life."

Melton says the "ultimate success" for him would be "regaining the love and trust" of his young daughter after completing his sentence for burglary and robbery.

Stan "Shug" Hearns hopes after ten years behind bars on a robbery conviction that he, too, can make amends with his family. He'd never written a poem or done much writing at all before his participation with Prison Performing Arts. "Until you start to get into it, you don't realize you have any creativity in you at all," he says.

Atchison, the inmate playing the McDonald's manager, is a long-time poet who occasionally writes sonnets for other inmates to give to their girlfriends or mothers. Yet writing, he concedes, hasn't always helped him stay out of trouble.

"I've been in and out a couple times," says Atchison, who's been back at MECC for seven months following a parole violation on a burglary conviction. "You get overwhelmed when you first hit the bricks. There's a lot to re-adjust and re-adapt to."

Atchison is due out in a couple months and says he's certain this will be the last homecoming he has to prepare for. "It feels different this time," he says. "I'm not going to let myself get back here again."

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